Nonprofit champions Southern documentaries

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — Making documentary movies in and about the South can be a struggle. Compared to cultural and business capitals like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, the region is short on the professional networks of investors, distributors and other key players that the documentary industry depends on, says Naomi Walker, executive director of the Southern Documentary Fund, or SDF.

Founded in 2002, the Durham-based nonprofit works to cultivate documentaries about the region and to plug regional documentary-makers into the national networks critical to their success. A key role has been to serve as a fiscal sponsor for documentaries, including 150 that have been completed and another 73 still in progress.

SDF acts as a matchmaker and consultant for documentary-makers, providing connections, feedback and mentoring designed to improve their work, help get it financed and distributed, and increase its social impact.

And since 2014, SDF itself has made four grants a year, of $2,500 to $7,000 each, as seed money for documentaries, thanks to a five-year, $100,000 grant from The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation in Durham.

The funding for that “re-granting” has raised SDF’s profile with national funders, Walker says.

SDF is seeking additional funding it would use to make more grants to more documentary-makers, match them with mentors, and generate feedback for works in progress. It also would create a “civic-media incubator,” starting in the Triangle, featuring a public event at which anyone could pitch ideas to documentary-film students. Veteran moviemakers would mentor students making short documentaries.

A first grant, however small, can mean a lot to a documentary-maker, and can be a critical catalyst for more funding, Walker says.

“Grants beget grants,” she says. “It gives them cache and leverage they need to get more funds. It puts them on the radar of bigger funding.”

A documentary can cost $100,000 to millions of dollars to make, Walker says.

“Documentary filmmakers typically have to do a lot of other work to support themselves, so it can take years,” she says. “It’s more of an avocation than a career.”

And while documentary-makers, like many artists, often do much of their creative work alone, they also want to be part of a community to share skills and ideas, and talk about problems they face in their work, she says.

To foster Southern documentary-makers and documentaries about the South, SDF aims to “create the community they need,” Walker says.

The South, for example, is short on executive producers, she says, referring to people who work to help documentary-makers secure investment and distribution deals needed to make movies and get them shown.

So, next spring, SDF initially plans to match a handful of moviemakers, one each, with a handful of prospective funders. Each funder will take the respective moviemaker to dinner once a quarter for a year. If a pair hits it off, the prospective funder would host a fundraising house party, using a guide SDF will create. SDF than would host roundtable events for the new funders to talk with veteran executive producers.

“Most documentary filmmakers have to leave the South and move to New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco to have access to industry connections and to get the work that supports their field,” Walker says. “We want makers to be able to stay here and flourish.”

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